Capital Metro's Project Connect transit expansion plan got some initial OKs this summer. The transit agency's board approved its recommended system plan in June, and the Austin City Council passed a resolution supporting the plan. But this is just the beginning of the line.
The Project Connect recommended system plan includes, among other things, three light rail lines and one commuter rail line; new bus rapid transit lines; and neighborhood circulators.
That's the full plan. But Cap Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke says he's not "predetermining that's what policymakers will decide upon" in taking the next steps with the project.
So, what does come next?
Clarke says the summer will be busy when it comes to Project Connect. He anticipates both the City of Austin and Cap Metro working on financial and governance issues.
One of the big issues on the table is a potential tax rate vote in this November's election. Clarke and project consultants estimate an 11-cent increase in the city's tax rate would be required to fund the city's portion of the full project. A decision on that vote is expected from the City Council in August.
Clarke is confident Austinites would want to help pay for this expansion.
"We are the 11th largest city in the country," Clarke says. "We're still growing massively. There are cranes everywhere. People know that traffic is bad. It's only going to get worse."
While city leaders hash things out this summer, Clarke says work continues on design and environmental aspects of the project. If voters approve funding in November, some bike, pedestrian and bus improvements could be implemented within a few years, he says.
Read the transcript below or listen to the interview to hear more from Clarke about Project Connect, including why he thinks COVID-19 will not ultimately impact it that much.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke: Cap Metro can't fund all of this by itself, and the City [of Austin] has indicated it wants to be a partner in helping move a significant transit expansion forward. So we anticipate more work this summer between both bodies. It's truly a partnership. It's really a transit partnership, and [we'll] be laying out a little more detail on potential financial measures and overall governance measures.
Ultimately, it's going to be a policymaker decision, but a lot of indications are that the policymakers will call to do a transit referendum in November. And if that is the case, that will be up to the residents then to vote on how they would like to fund their mobility in the future.
KUT: It's close to a $10 billion plan, and it looks like a little less than half of it would be paid for by federal funding. Is that federal funding guaranteed? Is that something that can be counted on to fund a portion of the project?
Clarke: We feel very confident about the federal funding. It’s a very well designed, very used program across all states and cities. All of our peer cities have received funding whether it's Dallas or Houston or L.A. or Boston, you name it. We are very confident that the federal funding will be there. It is bipartisan, approved in Congress every year.
KUT: And what about funding then for the other portion? Just over 50% — that funding has to come from somewhere else. Where will the other funding come from?
Clarke: Locally, the funding would come from both Cap Metro — we have a capital expansion fund; we will have in our long-range financial model funding available for operations and maintenance. On the city side, there's been a lot of discussion of a tax rate election or some other mechanism to really call a transit referendum to say, "Members of this community: Are you willing to fund a part of this system to provide these long-term benefits?"
KUT: What would that tax rate request be? What would Austinites be asked to do to help pay for this expansion?
Clarke: Ultimately, that's going to be discussed pretty heavily this summer, and it's ultimately a policymaker decision. The information that we did show — because, again, we were trying to show what the entire system model would look like and I'm not predetermining that that's what policymakers will decide upon or the mechanism, but we want to show that openly and transparently — that called for what would be an 11-cent property tax increase. But my understanding is about a 5% overall property tax increase.
KUT: And who is actually making that decision then?
Clarke: Ultimately, it's a partnership, right? So Cap Metro has to put money into the pot plus has to go get the federal money, being the federal grantee. The [Austin] City Council, the mayor and the council have to call the referendum because that's the city's part. So obviously there has to be an alignment between the partnership, and ultimately then city council would have to take the action to call a referendum and then residents would have the vote on that.
KUT: Are you optimistic that a vote like that would be a positive vote, because it seems like that's an important chunk of the funding that voters would need to approve? How do you feel about that if it were to come to an election?
Clarke: So my personal take on this, being here in Austin for just under two and a half years, is our community overwhelmingly wants a significant investment in transit. Some of the information we showed at our work session showed in the 90% range. People in our city want a big transit expansion. We are the 11th largest city in the country. We're still growing massively. There are cranes everywhere. People know that traffic is bad. It's only going to get worse.
If we want to seriously deal with some historic inequities in our city, we've got to provide better access to jobs and health care and education. And we all know that air quality and climate change are significant issues to deal with in the future as well. Let alone the big job creation program of this, which for every billion dollars of public transportation, it's estimated 20,000 jobs are created.
KUT: Obviously, this is a very long-term project with multiple phases. Has COVID-19 impacted any of the thinking about Project Connect going forward?
Clarke: I'm still a very big believer in cities and how people ultimately want to interact and live with each other like we have done throughout human civilization. Do I think some people will telecommute more than they used to? Yes, I do think that. Will it be a very large number? Personally, I don't think that will be the case. I think there's a lot of people that will miss the social aspect plus the convenience of being near other factors besides the commute itself.
KUT: When would work begin on the first phase of the expansion?
Clarke: If policymakers call a referendum and if that passes in November, we will be in earnest the next day working on this program. We're still in our planning design process and environmental review process that we're going to keep on working through this fall. We'll be ready to go in 2021.
Over time we'll build different elements. So some of the early things could be some biking and pedestrian improvements and some bus improvements and new bus lines. And that could happen over the first few years, working towards rail lines coming online in eight or nine years.
We have to focus it on where we need the service today. From an equity point of view, it is overwhelming in the last couple of months that it's been acknowledged the historic inequities not just in our community but in our country. These types of projects are the projects that help resolve some of those things.
So we know we have mobility issues today with or without COVID-19. And some of those projects, like we have bus rapid transit lines on Manor Road up to Expo Center, as an example, or down Pleasant Valley to McKinney Falls. Those services are needed today, and those would be kind of early projects to really, truly help the people that are the essential workers of our economy get better mobility service than they have.
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